The Disgrace in Tanking

By Bob Hiller

We all know the old sports truism: It’s not whether you win or lose; it’s how you play the game. I tell my boys that I don’t care if they win so long as they play hard and fair. The truth is, we all play to win, and we all want to win. But in every game, there must be a loser. So, though the goal is to win, the aim in each game is to play hard so that one can lose with dignity. 

Well, it would seem that some owners in the National Basketball Association don’t quite see eye to eye with me on this one. In fact, some are calling for their teams to lose on purpose! The reasoning goes like this: the team with the worst record in the league has the best chance at getting a higher draft pick. So, teams figure, if they are not good enough to make the playoffs, they may as well encourage their players to mail in the season. This way, you lock up your chance at a better draft pick and focus on next year. The draft favors those who are the biggest losers, which is fine if you are working with a theology of the cross. But God never promised to exalt the weak in professional sports. This is big money and business we are talking here. So, though it is bad news in the short term, teams are willing to make an immediate sacrifice for the sake of the franchise down the road.

From a business perspective, this might make some sense. But what it translates to on the court is bad basketball. So that, to no one’s surprise, the league is not thrilled about this tanking epidemic. In fact, as we learned this past week, they showed just how serious a stand they are ready to take. Marc Cuban, uber-rich owner of the Dallas Mavericks, went on a podcast with the great Dr. J (Julius Erving) and confessed that he took a few of his players out to dinner and told them, “Losing is our best option.” He was essentially telling them to throw games! He wasn’t happy about it but figured a better position in the draft would improve matters for the organization moving forward. He copped to what many have suspected a number of teams have been doing for a while: encouraging losing.

The NBA didn’t waste much time and this past week fined Cuban…wait for it… $600,000 for his comments! Adam Silver, NBA commissioner, said that the fine was for “public statements detrimental to the NBA.” Intentional losing, though it may help a team’s future prospects, is bad for the league’s business as a whole.

Cuban’s response? “I earned it.”

This whole thing got me thinking about the athlete’s themselves. What do you do if your owner tells you to lose on purpose? How do you handle that? How do you respond? Do you honor your boss? Or do you ignore his suggestion and get out on the court and give it our all?

I’ll tell you what you do: You ignore your boss and you play your rear off because as a professional athlete that is your vocation. An owner asking his or her players to mail in their craft is like telling a mechanic to only partially fix a car so that the driver has to bring the vehicle back to the shop sooner than necessary. It’s shameful. You’re telling your players to purposefully fail at the craft they’ve worked their whole lives to master. It is offensive to the players. There is no dignity in such losing. Not to get too hippy on you, but this is the problem when sports become business. The game itself doesn’t matter as much as the financial bottom line.

In your vocation, what matters is what your hands find to do in any given moment. The calling of a professional athlete is to go out on the court or field and give it their all every single night. In this way, they serve their neighbor in their craft. They honor their teammates by doing all the can to gain a victory for them. They revere the coach who has worked to put them in position to win. By playing hard against your opponent, you dignify their game and honor the work they have put in. Performing well for the fans demonstrates that you appreciate their hard-earned cash being spent on watching you execute your craft. What’s more, if you play in a way that aims at losing, less people come to the game, and if less people come to the game, vendors suffer. Ruin the product, ruin business for everyone else.

In professional sports, winning matters, but it is not all that matters. Like in every other vocation, what your craft does to serve your neighbor in that given moment is what matters most. Players aren’t responsible for what happens in the 2019 season. They are responsible for what happens on Sunday afternoon when the ball gets passed to them in the second quarter. Cuban is a savvy business man, but he should be ashamed of asking his players to betray their craft. If your team is no good, fine. But lose with dignity and honor the game by giving it your all. You may not get a better draft pick for your organization, but at least you can look your teammates in the eye when the game is over.